Biri Initiative, a story on coral restoration

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The Biri Initiative is dedicated to coral restoration on Biri Island, Northern Samar, the Philippines. Their mission is to rejuvenate damaged reefs and create alternative forms of employment to fishing. This is Richard Ewen and David Parker’s story from tourism and diving to stewards of the ocean.

The beginning of Biri Resort

fish swimming at Atlantis House Reef

The Biri Resort was completed in 2010 and soon after started hosting tourists. Visitors originally came to see the famous rock formations and were interested on happenings above the surface of the water. The new resort was well received by the community and significantly helped villagers as there was now infrastructure to cater to expatriates. We began hosting individuals from the International Medical Mission, a group of traveling doctors who care for less fortunate communities around the world. The doctors began occupying Biri Resort once a year and performed surgeries that otherwise would not have been possible on such a small island.

I met divemaster David Parker in Manila and it wasn’t long before we brainstormed opening a dive shop together at Biri Resort. This was just the start of our journey. We got the supplies and built the dive shop we dreamed of, appropriately changing our name to Biri Resort & Dive Center. The excitement was palpable and we couldn’t wait to get under the water. David came to dive at Biri Island but the outcome really was not at all what we hoped for. Until then, this was mostly unsurveyed seabed and over multiple dives that week we found a much destroyed ecosystem. In most places the coral was severely bombed and damanged. There was some intact reef closer to the coast but worst of all, there were no fish anywhere.

Blast fishing is one of the most destructive methods of collecting sea life. It is the practice of using explosives to stun or kill schools of fish for easier collection. Blast fishing is illegal in many countries and can destroy the surrounding ecosystem as the explosive charge can level the underlying habitat.

Our move towards coral restoration

In 2012 I created the Biri Initiative organization, an NGO via the Securities Exchange Commission to protect the Islands of Biri Northern Samar. Our secondary goal was to educate local communities on marine protected areas. We contacted local government, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Protected Area Management Board, and all the coastal entities concerned necessary to approve the projects we wanted to implement.

As with most non-profits we looked for donors everywhere but hit brick walls time and time again. Fortunately the for-profit arm of Biri Resort was able to keep funding our projects, and Biri Initiative was able to float.

We then used unique technology to develop our Biri buds, domes made of cement, rebar, and other materials that immediately create a habitat for an array of marine species. Our Biri Buds contain biomass in their construction to promote colonisation by algae immediately after their deployment.

Biri buds opened the door for us to team-up with Holcim Cement who awarded concrete for our project. They generously also also purchased a satellite map of Biri Island so we could record our achievements. To top it off, Aquamundo Sports, a local dive supplier, offered us discounts on dive gear and we were set.

Deeper partnerships and succeeding restoration goals

Initially deploying Biri buds at Biri Northern Samar was held-up on approval from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. In the meantime, a good friend and fellow resort owner Jonathan Thorpe of Big Apple Dive Resort combined efforts and we started deployment of reef buds in the already busy dive attraction Puerto Galera. This deployment showed overwhelming results as the reef buds had bloomed better than anyone expected.

After waiting 18 months we managed to start more projects and were finally making headway at Biri proper. Our goal was to promote ocean awareness, offering education and research opportunities in the Philippines. Initiatives ranged from mangrove to beach and harbour cleanup events, to crown of thorns removal. Crown of thorns removal remains an integral practice in maintaining our ecosystem.

We were now in a position to address more marine issues with eco-tourism.  We began recruiting students from around the globe to attend our voluntourism seminars. There they spend a number of weeks to study our marine protected environment. Students learn to dive while at the same time learning the fundamentals of conservation and basic surveying techniques. This lead us directly to our partnership with collecting data, teaching surveying methods, grid mapping. We make our data and observations available to all interested parties worldwide.

Recognition rose as George Cummings, Ocean Ambassador for the World Federation for Coral Reef Conservation, sponsored and helped deploy a Biri Bud, the cornerstone of our reef restoration efforts.

Continued conservation action at Biri today

We are still extremely active with mangrove, beach, and harbour cleanups. For crown of thorns removal we invite local fishermen and pay for their services. Beach cleanups involve engaging local school children. There is a depository at Biri Resort & Dive Center where children can drop off plastic they collected. The waste is upcycled into different size building blocks and used for a variety of projects. Already they exist in public works, low cost housing construction, and outdoor toilets and showers.

We got to thinking how could we combine our Biri Bud experience with coral farming and transplant techniques. We knew with proper training we could speed the time it takes for coral to incrust our Biri Buds.

The phone calls across the globe seemed endless until we located a local marine biologist in the Philippines, Homer Hernandez. He graciously decided to teach our team the correct practices in coral transplanting. After a few training sessions our team got to work and in no time the results were showing success. Realizing we had the right ingredients of mangroves, seagrass beds, established corals that were recovering from blast fishing, and marine protected status, we made our game plan. Repair each reef one reef at a time, and thus Project 250 was born.

Over the course of 2017, Project 250 has recovered loose coral fragments from the seabed. These fragments were planted on 150 Biri Buds and attached to 100 small and large cages of iron rebar. Some cages are reserved for coral nurseries so mature clippings become transferred to dynamite damaged areas.

We hope that you will come visit, in person or online!

Although our end goal is to develop an underwater habitat, we used some creativity in the placement of our seabed structures. As a first of its kind and approval from colleagues, we developed a seascape park. Divers can see an entrance gate, “park benches,” and statues, all manufactured by the Honorable Mr. Antonio Delos Reyes Jr., Mayor of Biri. Our project is not only a wondrous niche marine habitat, but a fun dive site, a unique conservation project, and great tourist attraction.






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